Setting a nice table
I like to set a pretty table, especially for family celebrations. It adds to the festivities and sets off all the hard work in the kitchen. I have some silverware I inherited from my mother, which I love but rarely use. That’s because whenever I go to use it, I discover it has tarnished. Black silver tends to spoil the presentation.
On a recent visit behind the scenes at the National Gallery of Canada, I saw rooms full of beautiful silver, all gleaming with loving care. Our guide explained how they banish tarnish at the museum.
I decided to clean my own silver and store it like they advised, so I’d never need to polish it again.
Cleaning silver using chemistry
Sulfur in the air changes silver into silver sulfide, which is black. This ugly coating that forms on the surface of silver over time is called tarnish.
You can easily reverse this process using electrolysis.
• Fill a pan large enough to hold your silver with enough water to cover the pieces.
• Cut a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the bottom of the pot.
• Put your silver on the foil.
• Bring the water to a boil.
• Add a tablespoon of baking soda to the boiling water.
Almost immediately the tarnish starts to disappear.
How electrolysis works
The silver, aluminum, and bicarbonate solution acts as a battery. Aluminum is highly electronegative, and silver is highly electropositive. So the aluminum donates electrons to the silver sufide, changing the compound back to silver. The chemical equation is
silver sulfide + aluminum —> silver + aluminum sulfide
The sodium bicarbonate solubilizes the oxide layer on the aluminum. Otherwise, the aluminum remains passive.
In my opinion, electrolysis is better than polishing for removing tarnish. It removes the tarnish from filigreed and carved portions almost instantly. Plus, because it changes the silver sulfide back to silver, you lose no silver in the process.
Cleaning your silver by physically polishing
Polishing also removes the tarnish (i.e., the silver sulfide), but it does so physically. It takes much time and elbow grease to obtain the result you get instantly with electrolysis. And in the process, polishing removes the silver that is bound within the silver sulfide. If your silver is silver-plated, like mine, polishing can with time remove all the silver plate, exposing the metal underneath. Not pretty.
Some expensive polishes contain silver, with the idea of adding silver back.
But the baking soda and aluminum method actually preserves the silver coating. Electrolysis changes the silver sulfide back into silver and bonds the silver molecules onto the silver surface. How good is that!
Some people prefer a gentle high-end polish, like Haggerty Silver Foam, because it gives a more lustrous shine than electrolysis. I followed the aluminum bath with a gentle buff using Haggerty and was very happy with the result.
Both baking soda and polishes are abrasive. To avoid scratching, always rinse all the product off thoroughly before buffing. Dry and buff with a clean cotton cloth.
Storing your silver
I packed my clean silver in bags I made from cloth treated with a sulfur-loving chemical. The treated cloth traps the sulfur in the air, so it can’t bond with my silver cutlery and form tarnish. Once cleaned and stored in these little baggies, my silverware should never tarnish again!
I got my cloth from Pacific Silvercloth, recommended by the National Gallery. This company sells ready-made bags and other items for storing silver, too. But buying the treated cloth by the yard and making my own bags was much cheaper.
Allow plenty of time to rehabilitate your silver. It took me 2 days to make my bags and one and a half days to polish my silver-plated items.
Now I’ll be able to use my silverware frequently, seeing as it won’t need to be polished every time I’m having company for dinner. Win-win!
Make your table sparkle with a one-time investment in cleaning,
and add glitz, easily, every time you want to share a nice meal.
Now is the time to enjoy the nicer things in life. Bon Appétit!